Former Penn State star Hanrahan learned about life and death ‘Wrestling With Angels’

By Mike Chapman

(Note: This column first appeared in WIN Magazine in April of 2020)

By now, you may have heard that former Penn State wrestling star John Hanrahan has written a book called “Wrestling With Angels”. Well, if you are going to read it — and I strongly recommend that you do — let me give you fair warning.

Don’t pick it up and plan on taking a week or ten days for a leisurely read. That isn’t going to happen!

Such was the plan when the book arrived on my desk. Instead, the book grabbed me by the throat and hung on, pulling me in deeper and deeper, page after page, until I couldn’t put it down. It’s 231 pages long, and I finished it in less than two days!

Here’s how the book starts:

“’Have you planned his funeral?’ That’s what the doctor said – Have you planned his funeral?

“He said this to us in a matter of fact way,” writes John. “Because it was pretty much a fact that Connor, our son, our firstborn, just 19 years old, had been laid to waste by addiction.”

At his son’s birth, John Hanrahan felt Connor had a special light and energy about him, but it was all gone: “There was no light or energy around him now. I didn’t think it was possible but he looked worse than the skeleton we’d picked up at the airport a few days before.”

Imagine seeing your son or daughter in that horrifying condition. Then imagine seeing yourself in it – only worse.

Because that’s where John Hanrahan himself had eventually wound up.

And John died!

First, some background. John Hanrahan’s real story begins with wrestling. In fact, it became a consuming passion for him, a source of pride and identification throughout his life, beginning at an early age. He had been a standout football player as a youth and wanted to try boxing, but his mother talked him into going out for wrestling instead. And he was hooked.

“Wrestling became my own little universe,” he writes. “It gave me everything football, school, and my father could not. From my first matches, I understood the power of imposing my will against another human being.”

John Hanrahan recorded 113 wins and earned two All-American honors at Penn State in the early 1980s.

He won a lot and felt on top of the world. And then he discovered drugs, including pot, cocaine and booze. He was high on drugs much of the time he won two Virginal high school state championships and twice placed high in the Junior Nationals.

He wound up at Penn State and finished third (in 1981) and fifth (in 1982) in the NCAA at 167 pounds. He became the first Nittany Lion to win 100 matches in a career and earned the nickname of “Hammer” for his physical style. He tried out for the 1980 and ’84 Olympic teams. During much of the time, he was an addict, unbeknownst to coaches and teammates.

“Wrestling gave me more than just a sense of power and control,” writes John. “From second grade on, it gave me the approval that I never got anywhere else. I hid my drug use from people, not only because I did not want to taint the sport I loved, but because I couldn’t bear to taint what others thought of me.”

When his college career ended, his good looks took him to a world he could have never imagined. Out of the blue, he attracted attention from modeling agencies and soon became one of the most popular male models in the world, working out of New York and going to such exotic locales as Paris, Milan, Zurich and Tokyo. As big money flowed his way, so did the cocaine and alcohol.

“My image was on subways, on billboards, all the boutiques that sold Versace, and in Vogue and all the magazines. People point me out on the bus when they saw my face in the ad next to me. I was a top model and it felt great. And I knew only one way to make it feel even better. Within weeks, I was walking right past the bouncers and into Studio 54 carrying a coke jar full of cocaine.”

Drugs had completely replaced wrestling as his obsession.

 And then John Hanrahn died.

 If you want to know how and when, you’ll have to buy the book. I can’t even try to explain any of it here. Read it for yourself.

Wrestling runs all through the pages. Some of the biggest names in the sport are there; legends like Dan Gable, Mark and Dave Schultz, Lee Kemp, Ken Monday and Rich Lorenzo, all members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

John Hanrahan eventually beat his drug addictions and his own stifling insecurities. He became a respected physical trainer and even got back into wresting when in his 50s. In fact, he won a senior world championship in 2016 at age 57.

John Hanrahan

Connor also recovered. He has been clean for nearly a decade and recently graduated from a film school in London, while John has been clean for over 22 years. Much of the credit for their survival he gives to his wife, Kirsten, who herself was a top fashion model and who stuck by him through thick and thin.

Today, Hanrahan owns a successful business as an elite physical trainer and offers health and wellness advice to athletes, students, corporations and the general public. He has trained some of the best-known celebrities in the world – from John F. Kennedy, Jr., to Julia Roberts, Melanie Griffith and Jerry Seinfeld.

He and Kirsten founded, a not-for-profit company that offers assistance to families struggling with the nightmare of drug addiction.

I’ve never met John, but was told about his remarkable story of faith and redemption by my longtime friend, Dean Barnard, who was an Iowa state high school champion back in 1969. Dean also had a long, tough road in order to find himself, but nothing like what John went through.

Dean began training with John, lost a lot of weight, became truly healthy – and also won a senior-age world title. Both John and Dean have been on national Christian networks to tell their stories of faith and new-found life.

“This book is my redemption,” writes John at the very end. “I own my message of light through the darkness. Of hope and faith. Of prayer.”

Honestly, I’ve never read a book like “Wrestling with Angels”. I could have written five times this much, but you don’t need to read any more from me – you need to get the book and let John himself tell you his truly incredible story.

(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN Magazine, the Dan Hodge Trophy, the National Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, author of 30 books and has been named to many halls of fame.

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